Famine Research Paper

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Drought is the proximate cause of most peacetime famines in peasant societies, but excessive rain can have the same effect. The best example of this is the Irish famine from 1845 to 1850. Three phrases guide analysis in this entry: peasant societies, proximate cause, and ultimate cause.

Peasant Societies

The peasant concept of the good life is the minimum expenditure of physical labor. Minimum labor expenditures equate to subsistence labor norms in food production. In normal crop years, subsistence labor norms lead peasants to grow enough food to last until the next harvest on the assumption that every crop year will be normal. Peasants know that every crop year will not be normal, but they prefer the marginal food safety of normal crop years if they can minimize the labor of cultivation. A minimal expenditure of agricultural labor to grow subsistence amounts of food is known as the subsistence compromise. The practice of the subsistence compromise defines who are peasants.

The practice of the subsistence compromise is clearly seen in most photographs of peasant cultivation practices that reach the media. These photographs show women planting rice sprouts in ponded fields, or dibbling maize or sorghum seeds into poorly prepared ground, or hoeing a patch of maize or sorghum overgrown with weeds, or harvesting grain with a child strapped on their backs. Where are the men for this sustained labor? The only labor that is gender specific to men is plowing and digging potatoes, yams, and cassava. Almost all of the rest of the labor of cultivation is done by women and children. This is why high birthrates are desirable in peasant societies. Children can do much of the agricultural labor that is gender specific to women.

Proximate Cause

In order to live by subsistence labor norms, peasants willingly endure seasonal hunger in poor crop years and risk famines in consecutive poor crop years. Before the midtwentieth century, there were few roads or vehicle tracks into peasant villages. Starving peasants fled their villages in search of food (as Irish peasants did) or watched their children starve so that some adults would survive. During the second half of the twentieth century, roads or vehicle tracks were built into most peasant villages. When there was severe hunger, food donations arrived from central governments (to prevent mass migrations to cities that governments could not control) or food was donated by nongovernmental agencies. Donated food was essential to prevent starvation because peasants produced few commodities to sell for money to purchase food.

Ultimate Cause

The marginal food safety of peasant households in normal crop years is due to deficient labor applied to cultivation. The subsistence compromise produces no food surplus for consumption in consecutive poor crop years, and peasants experience privation. The cumulative effect of consecutive poor crop years is famine conditions.

Subsistence Social Values

This is an unfamiliar concept for most people in commercial cultures. They find it difficult to believe that cultivators voluntarily produce subsistence amounts of food when increased labor expenditures, especially by males, could produce abundant harvests.

Peasants use four strategies to minimize agricultural labor and, at the same time, produce sufficient food in normal crop years to last until the next harvest. They practice cultivation techniques requiring minimal labor expenditures; they control land use with some variety of communal tenure so that a village’s arable land can be continually divided to accommodate additional households; they have many children to whom they can transfer labor at young ages; and they mitigate the worst effects of deficient harvests by sharing food among village households.


The welfare of peasant households does not depend on the acquisition of money. It depends on control of land use. When peasants control land use they can control labor expenditures and this means performing subsistence labor norms in cultivation. Peasant households can and do reject the earning of money incomes because earning money incomes requires continuous labor. As long as they control land use they have little interest in performing continuous wage labor (commercial labor norms). The reciprocal of subsistence labor norms is accepting privation in poor crop years.

Most economists do not recognize the distinction between subsistence labor norms (subsistence social values) and commercial labor norms (commercial social values). They assume that all persons want to earn money incomes and willingly perform commercial labor norms to acquire sufficient money to constitute an income. This is a false assumption. Economists make this assumption because they confuse monetization with commercial social values. Almost all peasant societies are monetized.

Peasants, however, want to acquire sufficient money to purchase a limited number of manufactured items. The most commonly purchased items are textiles, edged steel tools, steel cooking pots, plastic buckets, and sandals. After they have acquired enough money to purchase these items they cease laboring to produce additional products for market sale. Anthropologists call the money acquired to make these purchases a target sum.

Peasant households can subsist without the use of money as many do in the highlands of Papua, Indonesia, and Indian villages where the Hindu caste system operates. Households subsist without the use of money because the items they purchase can be made by resident artisans (pottery cooking pots, hand-loom textiles), as they were in the past. These items have a customary barter value, usually measured by handfuls or pots of grain.

It is, however, advantageous to purchase manufactured items because they have greater utility and durability. It is also advantageous to purchase them because the labor expended to produce products for market sale is less than that required to make artisan products, and much of this labor can be done by children. If households grow a small amount of food for sale, this is their exchange commodity. In poor crop years, however, it is eaten and no purchases are made of manufactured items. Households subsist without the use of money.

Most economists do not understand that money incomes do not exist in peasant villages. Economists, however, create them by assigning a money value to the harvest of peasants or to the number of hours of labor they assume were expended to grow a household’s annual food supply. In reality, the food grown by peasants has no money value. If it were sold, peasant households would starve. Likewise, the labor that is expended to grow a subsistence food supply has no market value because no money is received.

Economists create fictitious money incomes for peasant households in order to compare the welfare of peasant households with the welfare of households in commercial cultures. Fictitious incomes are created for peasant households by applying the techniques of financial analysis to subsistence cultures. Fictitious incomes created by economists make peasants poor in relation to the money incomes earned by households in commercial cultures. Peasant households, however, are not poor. They are subsistent. Sometimes economists use terms like subsistence income, nonwage income, implicit income, leisure income, or income concept to indicate that they know the incomes they have created are fictitious; however, they continue to compare real and fictitious incomes. The result is confusion.

The fictitious incomes created by economists cannot be used to compare the welfare of households in subsistence and commercial cultures because incomes in commercial cultures are real money. Real money incomes measure household welfare in commercial cultures because households require money to purchase their food, clothing, and housing needs. Financial analysis operates with reasonable efficiency in commercial cultures but has universally failed to measure household welfare when applied to subsistence cultures.

Creating fictitious incomes for peasant households creates huge distortions in policies recommended by economists to increase food production in peasant nations. The failure of economists to recognize the fundamental difference between subsistence and commercial labor norms has largely contributed to the continual failure of policies that economists recommend to initiate economic development. Economic development must begin with producing assured food surpluses in all crop years in order to feed full-time wage laborers living in cities. The failure of their policies is most obvious in sub-Saharan Africa and in many Latin American nations.

Increasing food production requires different policies from those recommended by economists. As the term political economy indicates, political policies precede economic policies. Unfortunately, most economists are poorly prepared to recommend political policies because their training is financial and they are indoctrinated to believe that money incomes are the universal way of measuring household welfare.


The famines that occurred in the last twenty years of the twentieth century were due to war. Peacetime famines have been avoided by food gifts to households in affected peasant societies. Peacetime famine conditions will continue to recur in peasant societies until central governments enforce a change in land tenure from communal to freehold so that money taxes can be collected on agricultural land. In freehold tenure, households that practice the subsistence compromise and fail to pay money taxes can be evicted and forced to become supervised, paid agricultural laborers who can produce assured food surpluses.


  1. Seavoy, Ronald E. 1986. Famine in Peasant Societies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  2. Seavoy, Ronald E. 1989. Famine in East Africa: Food Production and Food Policies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  3. Seavoy, Ronald E. 2000. Subsistence and Economic Development. Westport, CT: Praeger.

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